America held its breath as Gordon Hayward let go of a 3-point shot against Duke in the 2010 national championship game. His shot was off the mark, bouncing off of the rim instead of going through the net as the Bulldogs walked away feeling the sting of a 61-59 loss to the Blue Devils.

If the shot goes in, we are talking about Butler’s chances of winning back-to-back titles this weekend. But Butler is still searching for its first championship, and considering the breaks the Bulldogs have caught during this NCAA tournament run, they will be the team cutting down the nets.

Everyone is making a big deal about the experience factor, and yes, it is going to help to a certain degree. Experience alone, though, doesn’t put a banner in the rafters.

“We don’t necessarily think since the majority of us were here last year that that is going to be a deciding factor in the game, or if we’re fortunate enough, in both games,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “At some point, it’s about execution and it really doesn’t matter if you have been here before or not.”

Execution is everything, especially on a stage where mistakes are magnified. The Bulldogs know about execution. They have rattled off 13 consecutive wins, in part because they have been able to execute their defensive game plan. No team has scored more than 71 points against the Bulldogs during the streak, and that list includes tournament wins against top-seeded Pittsburgh (71-70) and second-seeded Florida (74-71 in OT).

Teams that play defense put themselves in a position to win championships. Butler has proven it can defend as well as anyone in the nation. Winning close games also helps. Butler has proven it can do that as well. The Bulldogs have won all four of their tournament games by less than 10 points.

A year ago, Butler was one close call away from being crowned a champion. This time around, the Bulldogs won’t have to worry about falling short. Experience, great defense and being battle-tested will send Butler to the top of the college basketball mountain.


-- Brian Lester,


Virginia Commonwealth has what every coach wants at this time of the season: swagger. The Rams' you-can't-beat-us mentality has been paramount during VCU's tournament run.

That mind set -- and a frenetic offense aptly named "Havoc" -- epitomizes the players' chip-on-their-shoulder approach.

It's a well-seasoned team, even if the Rams weren't supposed to be a part of the madness in March (at least according to some).

VCU also is a fast-paced team, offensively and defensively. The Rams' up-and-down, push-the-floor approach includes as many as 10 players, six of which are seniors or juniors; experience is not a problem.

Defensively, VCU is best at full-court pressure. Creating turnovers and firing 3-pointers on the other end fuels the Rams. It's a tried-and-true recipe for success that has served VCU well during its postseason run.

While Joey Rodriguez runs point, the Rams do a great job of setting screens and having Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess launch 3s. That said, any of the five players on the court will fire away, which may panic opponents' defenses when the pace quickens.

VCU also is very confident -- borderline cocky, it may appear to some. Understand, it's confidence, period. The Rams are a near-mirror image of coach Shaka Smart. The team's relentless approach is rooted in Smart knowing his players' strengths and using them to the team's advantage.

The Rams have won four of their five tournament games by at least 10 points, using the 3-point shot to their advantage. VCU is hitting 44 percent of its 3-point shots. If that holds true on Saturday night, the Rams will be one game from doing what some thought was improbable three weeks ago -- whether those naysayers believe VCU deserved to dance in the first place.

After all, isn't that why we love "Cinderella"?


-- Duane Cross,